and ratings with Erica, and even join abook club
- Total pages read: 12,446
- Average pages read per day: 70
- Male/Female authors read: 21/18
- Average year published: 1992
Things I need to read more of:
- Foreign authors
- Other forms of literature - non-fiction, poetry, plays, essays, short stories
- Literature before 1950
5 Favorites so far:
1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
2. The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
3. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
5. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Week #25: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Elaine Dundy’s protagonist Sally Jay Gorce is “hellbent on living” as she travels through Paris in the 1950s. Sally Jay’s ebullience and lust for adventure traverse every page, and I fell in love with her right away. Philadelphia isn’t exactly Paris, but I enjoy the vibrancy of city life and want to live in a city as long as I can stand it. Although Dundy’s novel was first published in 1958, the characters and the story ring true and timeless. Sally Jay is simultaneously clever and naive, wise and youthful. I constantly wrote down quotes from the young narrator, and I’d love to share some with you here.
“The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way?”
“It’s amazing how right you can be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.”
“[T]he question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.”
“Oh, Teddy, darling, thank you, thank you, for restoring my cynicism. I was too young to lose it. ”
“No matter what you do you’ve got to try to do it well. Otherwise, it’s unbearable.”
Please read this book. I’m sure you’ll love it.
I hate dreams. Dreams are the Sea Monkeys of consciousness: in the back pages of sleep they promise us teeming submarine palaces but leave us, on waking, with a hermetic residue of freeze-dried dust. The wisdom of dreams is a fortune on paper that you can’t cash out, an oasis of shimmering water that turns, when you wake up, to a mouthful of sand. I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something, by and by. I hate them for the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash. I hate them for their tedium, how they drag on, peter out, wander off.
Pretty much the only thing I hate more than my own dreams are yours.” —Michael Chabon, Why I Hate Dreams, New York Review of Books Blog
Week #21: Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut
Someone told me recently that you either love or hate Vonnegut.
I love him.
Vonnegut is famous for a graduation speech he never gave in 1997 at MIT, where the main point was to “wear sunscreen”. But he did give a graduation speech at Rice University the next year, and he reprised this speech at the Free Library of Philadelphia on September 10, 1998. I recently downloaded and listened to this podcast from the Free Library website.
In this actual speech, Vonnegut calls the graduating students “Adams and Eves” who have just eaten the apple of knowledge and are now being kicked out of Eden. He then calls himself the Methuselah who has come to impart some wisdom. I love this sense of humor; in spite of his biting sarcasm and critiques of modern society Vonnegut always showcases his humanist sense of optimism.
Bluebeard, or The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, follows narrator Karabekian’s journey as an Abstract Expressionist. As with the Bluebeard fairy tale, Karabekian has had a number of wives. He did not kill them like Bluebeard, but he admits that he didn’t take care of them either. Vonnegut’s novel debates the value of art, artists, and greed. This wasn’t my favorite of his novels, but I would still recommend it.
So it goes.
In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” —Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Week #23: HHhH by Laurent Binet (Translated by Sam Taylor)
I was so impressed by Laurent Binet’s debut novel, HHhH. In a unique blend of historical narrative and semi-fictional narration, Binet tells the story of SS Captain Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination. The title in German stands for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” which translates as Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich. Heydrich was one of Hitler’s top dogs, ranking second only to Himmler. The unnamed narrator mirrors Binet’s interest and study of the Czechoslovak heroes who committed this act. I learned most of my World War II history in my high school German classes and admittedly my history background is scanty at best. I had never heard the story of parachutists Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the brave soldiers who risked their lives to kill the “Butcher of Prague”. Binet’s novel has me fascinated with the Czechoslovak resistance movement and the relationships within the SS and Nazi regime.
As he relays the story, the narrator struggles with how best to present his research. Each time he describes a conversation, he backtracks and scolds himself for inventing dialogue. But Binet’s insertions of inner monologue are what make this book so much more captivating than straight history. I’ve enjoyed a number of these novels that blur the line between fiction and history, among them Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and of course Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Week #18: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A wealthy man with many enemies is gruesomely murdered. His three sons are suspected, and one son is arrested. A lengthy trial ensues, but the son’s alibi doesn’t hold up because of a complicated love triangle.
But guess what? The butler did it.
Pretty typical thematic tropes, right? So what makes The Brothers Karamazov such a great work of classic literature? Probably the impassioned moral and philosophical arguments laid out in the novel about free will, existentialism, morality, and reason. Each of the three Karamazov brothers engenders a different philosophy. Dmitri, like his father, is a sensualist who loves women, wine, and spending his money. Ivan plays the rationalist and is the only son with a strong education. Alyosha, much like Prince Myshkin from The Idiot, is a Christ-like figure who has devoted his life to God.
I read (er… listened to) most of this novel on audiotape. I downloaded it from http://librivox.org/, and probably couldn’t have gotten through it any other way. I listened to many chapters repeatedly before I felt I had grasped the themes and even the basic plot lines. I started to read the book many times before I enlisted the help of an audio recording, but I just couldn’t manage the Russian names, frequent footnotes, and the hefty weight of the 1100 page tome. Even with the listening aid, it still took me almost three months to get through the entire story.
Although I’d definitely recommend The Brothers Karamazov, I’d even more strongly recommend audiobooks.
For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.” —Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
Week #18: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley’s retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I’ve read and studied King Lear at least four or five times in various Shakespeare classes, but knowing the novel’s plot in advance far from spoiled the story, as proved <a href=”http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/08/spoilers-dont-spoil-anything/”>here</a>.
Transposed to 1970s Iowa, Smiley’s novel is narrated by wounded eldest sister, Ginny (Goneril). At the peak of his success, farmer Larry Cook offers his farm to his three daughters. Elder daughters Ginny and Rose live and work on the farm and see this offer as a reward for years of their hard work. Youngest Caroline, a successful out of town lawyer, refuses the gift setting in motion a chain of disastrous events for the extended Cook family.
Smiley’s treatment of women and female perspective lend the story a distinctly different flavor than Shakespeare. Score one for the lady writers.
Week #16: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
When this book was published in 2010 every news program that I listen to reviewed it. I held off for a while because it seemed too much like “chick lit” based mostly on the cover art. But as I have recently resolved to ignore such labels, I picked this up at the library a few weeks ago.
Aimee Bender’s novel begins with an intriguing premise: nine year old Rose Edelstein can taste the emotion of the cook in every bite of her food. Her mother bakes lemon cake for Rose’s ninth birthday, and Rose can only taste sadness and loneliness. Confronting her mother about these feelings, Rose encounters denial. Rose’s parents and doctors do not understand her newfound ability, forcing her to keep it almost entirely to herself. Only her brother’s friend George attempts to understand.
Rose’s precocity makes the early chapters of the book fun and even believable. Her descriptions of her family (through their food choices) show a maturity not often found in nine year olds. Rose discovers earlier than most the faults of her parents:
“Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.”
Unfortunately the plot swerves and begins to focus on Rose’s brother Joseph, who also possesses some supernatural gifts. I felt this detracted from Rose’s arc and witticisms. NPR’s review drew parallels with J.D. Salinger, but any comparison to Holden Caulfield or even Franny and Zooey feels like a stretch to me.
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost
Week #17: Darkness Visible by William Styron
Depression is… well a depressing thing to talk about. But as the CDC reports that 1 in 10 adults report depression, it seems like a topic that should be at the forefront of national conversation. William Styron writes this essay as a sufferer of the disease. Styron’s essay began as a lecture that he gave at Johns Hopkins and was developed into an essay for Vanity Fair in 1989. In 1992 Styron expanded upon his essay and published Darkness Visible. Styron describes depression as only someone who has suffered can. For those who suffer from depression or know someone who does, this is a must read.
Week #16: Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
I imagine that a character sketch like Glaciers is the first step in a young author’s progression to novelist. Alexis Smith’s debut novella chronicles a day in the life of Isabel, a librarian book restorer and thrift store hunter. Although short, the novella was beautifully evocative of this young woman’s feelings over the course of her day. Delicate, sensitive prose and pacing set the tone of this short story.
But Smith’s writing still seems underdeveloped and immature, a bit like her character Isabel. The first half rambled and the resolution felt forced. I look forward to seeing how Smith matures as a writer, and she will remain on my radar.